Britain’s Upcoming Election Could Be Brexit 2.0
A strong showing by Labour could be the same shock to the global political system as the British referendum.
When Jeremy Corbyn, an afterthought to the British elite for decades, claimed his shock victory in the Labour leadership contest in 2015, he unapologetically grabbed hold of his new mantle, jamming out to his party’s all-but-officially discarded anthem, “The Red Flag.”
In subsequent episodes that autumn four years ago, Corbyn was joined onstage by another throwback, musician Billy Bragg: “Then raise the scarlet standard high, beneath its folds we’ll live and die, though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here.”
Much of the British glitterati sneered. The prospect of Corbyn, and his right-hand man, the Marxist shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell, at Labour’s commanding heights was surely unworkable. Hence, there were multiple internal coup attempts aimed at the duo. As Corbyn helms his party as it heads into an election next month, establishment grandees insist he has no chance, as if Never Trumpism has crossed the Atlantic and transmuted into Never Jeremyism.
When Donald Trump ally Nigel Farage announced Monday that he would not contest Conservative-held parliamentary seats, a boon to the ruling Tories, Corbyn again made his distaste for the American president apparent. The lefty leader tweeted: “One week ago Donald Trump told Nigel Farage to make a pact with Boris Johnson. Today, Trump got his wish. This Trump alliance is Thatcherism on steroids and could send £500 million a week from our [National Health Service] to big drugs companies. It must be stopped.”
Official grievances aside, lazy observers of late-capitalist Western politics might miss the similarities between the two septuagenarians. Corbyn is a genuine leftist, to be sure, and President Trump has emerged as a right-wing nationalist of some sort, but concrete characterizations alone mistake the pair’s full appeal. Bernie-Trump and Obama-Trump voters were as real in 2016, as the more comfortable, often suburban “Romney-Clinton voters.” Ditto Labourites for Brexit.
Both outsiders, Corbyn and Trump, benefit from a general, even apolitical, ennui. Governments that are consistently in the red with their populaces on the question of whether the country is headed in the right direction risk the dark. The “age of nationalism,” with Trump in Washington, Johnson in London, Orban in Hungary, Putin in Moscow and Modi in New Delhi, has thus far failed to quell an ascendant, global dissatisfaction, even as the most macabre projections of the future, from climate doomsday to AI apocalypse to a second Great Depression, have thus far been averted.
What’s the matter? The population at large is only so specific. Witness, a New York bar-dweller telling Vice’s Michael Moynihan that he will be voting in 2020 for Trump—or establishmentarian Democrat Pete Buttigieg. Take note of a white, high school educated woman telling McClatchy’s Dave Catanese she only voted for Trump because she he couldn’t win: “I’m ashamed to admit ..I just couldn’t vote for Hillary. But I also thought there’s no way Trump was going to win. This way, I could at least say, ‘Well I didn’t vote for her,’… ‘I didn’t think I was doing any harm.’”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson strikes me as vulnerable to similar political headwinds heading into a snap election called for next month. Johnson has called the contest to finally, at last, deliver Brexit, the populist, anti-European Union measure voted in nearly four years ago. His clique is confident: Corbyn is a neophyte, feared by the markets, and sure to lose. Sound familiar?
Others quietly aren’t so sure. A major possibility is that Corbyn doesn’t win, but bloodies Boris badly enough that he fails to win a majority, throwing the British system into further chaos. “Think a good chance” of an upset, Freddy Gray of the Spectator told me. “Hung parliament quite likely I would say. A lot of people who have never voted Tory will have to vote Tory. And just not sure that happens.”
“Yes, quite a high chance,” Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times told me. “For a laugh, look up the personality ratings of Boris and Corbyn. They might literally be the most two most despised people in the Kingdom. What an extraordinary electoral choice.”
If 2016 is any guide, wonky things tend to happen when voters are left loose to choose between two questionable options. Many election prediction mechanisms put Corbyn’s chance of outright victory around 10 percent, and the chance of a chaotic upset generally below 50. Those odds are better than the 2 percent Huffington Post gave Donald Trump on the eve of the 2016 election.
There are exceptions—the failed 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the corporate Republican sweep in the U.S. in 2014 and then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s surprisingly comfy margin of victory in the general election in 2015. Those results reassured establimentarians. The end of history was continuing, however beleagueredly, apace. Next up, assuredly, was: trade authority for the Trans Pacific partnership, the rejection of the Brexit referendum, and U.S. President Jeb Bush.
We know how it played out. But it’s worth considering events now in a broader context. Government measures since the recession of 2008-09 and the collapse of the Anglo world’s prestige in the Middle East last decade, such as the American bank bailouts, European austerity, the “surge” in Mesopotamia, the “stimulus” program and the Affordable Care Act, have been, time and again, judged by the voters to be palliative, band-aids for bullet holes. As a well placed source said he once told Mitt Romney, the doomed 2012 Republican standard-bearer, the candidate who wins elections these days is most cynical.
This is the risk for Johnson who believes, probably sincerely, that his country’s voters are fatigued of “supermasticated subject of Brexit,” as he told his party conference in October, “when what people want, what leavers want, what [European Union] remainers want, what the whole world wants, is to be calmly and sensibly done with the subject.”
Would that it were so simple. There’s evidence enough that if the measure, leaving Europe, were held to a vote again, it would go down in flames. Generational replacement is the achilles’ heel of Brexitism, maybe Trumpism, as some voters from 2016 are simply not with us anymore.
If Trump and Johnson were to go down this December and the following November, this period in civilization will be remembered as one of chaos as the only rule—the gathering storm over the nitty-gritty. Free marketer Euroscepticism and right-wing nationalism, for now, didn’t so much gain traction as a general desire to shake things up.
On this score, Johnson, the posh, Etonian former president of the Oxford Union and scion of political insiders, has considerable vulnerabilities. Not least because some in his midst, including the Johnny-come-lately Farage, doubt he’s a true believer. Legendarily, Johnson in 2015 drafted two different columns for his weekly Telegraph bromide—one in favor of British exit, and one opposed, eventually going with the former, expecting, like the white, high school educated woman, for his vote to be on the losing side.
Trump, and to a lesser extent Johnson, may embrace publicly, but behind the scenes, it’s more complicated. A former senior Trump administration official told me Johnson, the erudite author of nearly a dozen books, hates being compared to the American anti-intellectual. “He is genuinely a bad person. Not an unlikable person but a bad person, as in he has no morals, no principles and beliefs,” a former close colleague told the New Yorker in September. “He would be whatever Prime Minister was necessary to maximize the chances of gaining and then maintaining power.”
In a time of tumult, the risk for Johnson, as it is for Trump, is the continued public thirst for a true believer.
Curt Mills is senior writer for The American Conservative.